The Azul Experiment
Since its inception on Brickell Key in 2001, Azul has been a gastronomic gem glimmering alongside the exquisite Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Miami native Michelle Bernstein helmed the Mandarin's signature dining establishment from the start (the underrated Café Sambal is located downstairs), and though she had held executive positions at Red Fish Grill, Tantra, and the Strand, it was at Azul that Ms. Bernstein's rising-star status matured into an undisputed reputation as one of South Florida's top chefs. Azul's fortunes soared along with Bernstein's, so six months ago, when she announced her intention to move to a position at Hotel Fiesta in Cancún, Mandarin management immediately began seeking a successor. Winner of the new-rising-star-chef search was Clay Conley, who molded his skills as executive chef and culinary director at Todd English's Olives restaurant. He started at the hotel January 15.
Azul's elegantly appointed 120-seat dining room looks the same as it did four years ago. The restaurant's entrance is unique in its ability to engage the diner immediately with a side view of the voluminous white marble kitchen and the kinetic cacophony of cooking action within. The dining area, with rosewood floors and champagne-color chairs, is bookended by the open kitchen in front and floor-to-ceiling windows in back, and broken up visually by vertical posts posited throughout. A bright bay view beckons during lunch, while at night the sheets of black glass reflect the interior's warm glow.
I'm not sure man or woman could live on bread and wine alone, but at Azul it would be a pleasure trying. A server comes by with a large rectangular basket neatly filled with crusty sourdough rolls and thick-cut slices of exceptional raisin-nut pumpernickel and whole-wheat breads. Might as well save the busy guy a few extra trips by requesting one of each at the start.
You can't very well ask the same of sommelier Richard Hales, unless you want some 700 bottles to appear. The wine program is one of the very best, an award-winning mix of classic vintages, current releases, and touted boutique wineries. Hales approaches every table and graciously offers guidance. The waitstaff is well trained in handling wines, too, and overall are an efficient group, but you're not going to receive the polish, precision, and panache of five-star service -- and if you do, it may not seem like it because of the staff's worn, unstarched denim shirt-and-tie attire, which is more befitting a trattoria.
An amuse-bouchée of sweet stone-crab morsels heightened with ginger and lime started us off in taste-bud-tickling fashion. Appetizers that followed were stylistic sisters to this small snack, each one a triplet of tiny tastes themed by a single ingredient and lined up on a white rectangular plate. "A Study in Tuna" was one such starter. I've always found something off-putting about eating food referred to as a study, and in fact it's the clinical and constrained quality of Azul's cuisine that tended to leave me cold. That said, the components of this particular inquiry were sublime. Number one: a roulade of yellowfin tuna, cucumber snippet, and Dijon-dipped crabmeat salad. Two: ultra-tender slices of tuna carpaccio crusted with coriander-ginger-salt, pooled in orange reduction and topped with bits of avocado tempura so small as to resemble deep-fried peas. Three: tuna tartare with touches of sesame oil, sriracha chili, ginger, and cilantro, topped with osetra caviar. Honey-mustard sauce was unnecessarily dabbled on the plate.
Quail treatments followed on the next white tray, most impressive among them being fried panko-breaded, sushi-size cylinders of quail "cordon bleu," the bird breast wrapped around ham and a melting Gruyre center. The next element on the plate was a short-stack of baby arugula leaves drizzled with red-wine vinaigrette and coifed with fried quail egg, after that a pair of comically small grilled quail legs, dubbed "chicharrone," in a drizzle of deep veal-based sauce. Altogether it was an adeptly assembled cornucopia of contrasts to stimulate the appetite, and like the other miniature samplings, possessed of enough rich flavors to satisfy as an opening course.
Mushroom consommé proved a less beguiling beginning, though perhaps I allowed the $20 price to get in the way of full appreciation. The broth possessed stellar clarity and full, rich fungi flavor, though no truffle or tuber flavor surfaced from diminutive dumplings of "truffled gnocchi" at the bottom of the bowl -- nor did any expected "shaved black truffles." Alongside the consommé was a grilled mushroom salad mostly composed of white mushrooms and, surprisingly, little else -- fresh but flat. A pliable (soggy) parmesan tuile took up the tray's three-spot, but neither cold garnish provided any high or low notes to play under or above the earthy tones of the soup.
After nibbling our way through what seemingly amounted to four amuse-bouchées for each of us, we were primed for entrées. The constituent approach to cooking continued unabated, main courses bringing a series of larger white, rectangular plates with three or four takes on specific "land" or "sea" items upon each. A "duet" of Kobe beef performed by braised short rib and grilled sirloin was the priciest at $45, but I went with the lower-end $30 platter of pork. From left to right: two slices of tastefully grilled pork loin on a bed of cold black beans (most entrées were lukewarm because small cuts of food cool more quickly than large ones, especially when the plates aren't hot); a compact square of crisped pork belly, a fatty, flavorful bacon-cut that was relatively meaty and sauced with braising liquid (it was supposed to contain mango salsa but we didn't spot any); and a crumbly ball of ground-pork stuffing coated in cornmeal polenta with light avocado cream below and real rib bone protruding.
One diner at our table ordered hamachi while another ordered char, and when the waiter asked for desired doneness, they requested medium. I was secretly pleased when both dishes arrived rare, since that would have been my preference, but a pertinent point is that the kitchen cooked the fish to its own liking, or else the waiter was simply humoring us. Miso-marinated hamachi, a soft, buttery member of the tuna family, came flashed with sake butter sauce and flecked with black sesame seeds. Accompanying the fish was an edamame stir-fry of barely warm jasmine rice with oyster sauce and a few green soy beans, and a cup of sake-spiked fish consommé containing shrimp "dumplings" so teeny that I feel compelled to use parentheses around the word; they were also too tiny to emit much crustacean character.
By the time I tasted a trilogy of Atlantic arctic char, I was starting to feel less like a diner and more like an unwitting participant in some quirky lab experiment. Could there be men in white coats behind the large mirror in the dining room, taking notes on which of the three components I would choose first? ("Ah, look here, doctor. Mr. Klein has a Wellington of char on the left side of his plate, the white salmon wrapped with duxelles of mushroom and puff pastry. A squiggly line of salmon caviar spheres takes up the center, and two slices of pan-fried char fillets with lobster bordelaise sit to his right, with a slice of black truffle on top. Watch closely! He's putting his fork into the pastry first and peering inside, just as I would have guessed. How pedestrian and predictable!") Actually the inside of the Wellington was delicious, like an upscale salmon kulebiaka, but the bottom dough was blackened.
Azul has long featured a postdinner array of artisanal domestic and imported cheeses. The diner, given a menu option of three or all five of the selections, has soft, hard, creamy, and blue cheeses from which to choose, though it's a bit odd that no sheep or goat products were included. Pastry chef Patrick Lassaque's desserts present tempting alternatives, such as a moist and eggy vanilla soufflé, a Sauternes-poached pear smartly paired with hazelnut cream-and-caramel sauce, and "vanilla stewed rhubarb," a warm compote encompassing rhubarb, strawberries, and a "caramelized puff pastry crust" that was really a crunchy cap of shortbread.
Some will thrill to the preciousness of presentations here, and most will admire the crystalline, clean flavors that chef Conley occasionally conjures. I've no quibbles with quality or freshness of ingredients nor with the triplicity of plate arrangements. But too many of the offerings are long on titillation and cleverness, short on mesmerizing, memorable tastes. Clay Conley has the skill to make Azul's cuisine a lot better than this, and there's no reason to think he won't. That's why they call him a rising star.
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